E rere kau mai te awa nui nei
Mai i te kāhui maunga ki Tangaroa
Ko au te awa
Ko te awa ko au.
The river flows
From the mountains to the sea
I am the river
The river is me.
Legendary Polynesian navigator Kupe’s early exploration of New Zealand is commemorated in many ancient place names. Kupe landed at Whanganui, known as Te Kaihau-o-Kupe, or ‘Kupe’s wind-eating’, because of the constant winds there. He then took his canoe upriver in search of inhabitants, paddling as far as Kauarapāoa. This was named for one of his men, Arapāoa, who drowned swimming across the river in flood.
It is told that although Kupe heard the bird calls of weka, kōkako and pīwakawaka (fantail), he did not find people. He returned to the river mouth and then made his way to Pātea in south Taranaki, where he planted karaka seed in its sweet soils.
On returning to Hawaiki in Polynesia, Kupe described his explorations to his people. Some time later, Turi, captain of the Aotea canoe, sailed to Pātea, where he made his home. According to tradition, his descendants who spread into the region discovered the original people of the land, Ngā Paerangi. The chief Paerangi, from whom they took their name, is said to have preceded Turi by five generations.
The collective name for the people of the river, Ngāti Hau, is in some versions said to have come from Haupipi. He sailed with Turi on the Aotea after his original canoe, the Kuruhaupō, was wrecked. In other versions the name is a contraction of Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi (the people of Haunui-a-Pāpārangi). Haunui-a-Pāpārangi also arrived with Turi, and his descendants settled among the people of Ngā Paerangi.
Another significant ancestor is Tamatea-pōkai-whenua, captain of the Tākitimu canoe and explorer of the Whanganui River. When entering the river Tamatea sent his servant ashore to find flax for a topknot (pūtiki). The place where flax was found became known as Te Pūtiki-wharanui-a-Tamatea-pōkai-whenua. Turi came to visit Tamatea, and his daughter Tāneroa fell in love and married Tamatea’s brother, Uenga-ariki.
In ancient times three mountains, Ruapehu, Tongariro and Taranaki, lived together in the centre of the North Island, the fish which Māui hauled from the sea. One day Taranaki attempted to carry off Pīhanga, the wife of Tongariro. In the ensuing battle Taranaki was defeated and escaped down to Whanganui. As he fled, he carved out the deep furrow of the river. The place where he eventually stopped in loneliness is the site of Mt Taranaki today.
Tamatea then built a canoe, and left his servant at the mouth of the river, while he explored upriver. According to some, this event gave rise to its name, Whanganui (from ‘whanga nui’, meaning ‘long wait’). Others say the name came from Haunui-a-Pāpārangi, and meant ‘great harbour’.
Tamakehu, a Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi chief, and his first wife Ruaka had three children: Hinengākau of the upper river, Tama Ūpoko, who settled in the middle reaches, and Tūpoho, associated with the lower Whanganui. Their names are regularly invoked to express the basic unity of the people. This is also emphasised by certain sayings, such as ‘te taura whiri a Hinengākau’ (‘the plaited rope of Hinengākau’) which refers to the ties between the people of the river.
Because the river’s path from the central North Island’s volcanic plateau is gradual and navigable over about 230 km, not only were some 80 pā and village sites built along its banks and cliffs, it also became one of the great arterial routes through the central North Island. This has ensured that other tribes, such as those of the Tainui confederation, Ngāti Raukawa and Ngāti Maniapoto, as well as Ngāti Kahungunu of the Tākitimu canoe and Ngāti Tūwharetoa of the Arawa canoe, also contribute to the genealogical history of the river.
The people of the Whanganui River were spared neither the musket-armed invasions of the early 19th century nor the attentions of Ngāti Toa under the leadership of Te Rauparaha. Twice Ngāpuhi swept through the region, once in 1819 under Patuone accompanied by Te Rauparaha and his fighting chief Te Rangihaeata. Pūtiki pā, across the river from today’s city of Whanganui, was attacked. After destroying a number of pā, the invading war party became trapped in the gorges of the upper river. They were defeated by Whanganui forces, led by Te Peehi Tūroa, at Kaiwhakauka, less than a kilometre below the junction of the Retāruke River with the Whanganui.
Another raid from the north reached the Whanganui River in 1821. This time it was the lower river chief Hōri Kīngi Te Ānaua who led the defeat of the invaders at Mangatoa. Te Peehi also ensured that Ngāti Raukawa, who twice attacked the upper river, were defeated.
Then in 1829 Te Rauparaha, returning to a new tribal home on Kapiti Island, again attacked Pūtiki pā with Ngāti Raukawa. This time many of the local chiefs escaped upriver – long known as te kōura putu roa (the crayfish’s lair).
The Whanganui tribes’ early contact with Europeans was sporadic, and mainly with whalers and traders, some of whom married into the tribes of the river. Following the signing at Whanganui of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, the land for the town of Whanganui was sold to the New Zealand Company in a questionable purchase. The settlers who followed slowly swelled the town, but their presence and demands for more land caused tensions between the lower river Māori and their upriver cousins. This resulted in an attack in 1847 on the now garrisoned town, led by the Ngāti Hāua-te-rangi chief Tōpine Te Mamaku and Te Peehi Tūroa; there was little bloodshed.
The name of the Whanganui River means ‘the great harbour’ – probably in reference to its broad tidal lower reaches. The town of Whanganui, at the river’s mouth, was for many years called Wanganui – the version of the name that European settlers heard.
During the New Zealand wars in 1864, upper river tribes came downriver with the intention of taking the town of Whanganui. They were followers of Pai Mārire (Hauhau), a religious movement combining Christian and traditional Māori beliefs, which strongly opposed Europeans taking the land. At an agreed time and place, they attacked their cousins who were defending their mana on the lower river at Moutoa, a small island downriver from Rānana. This battle became a tribal tragedy, with the deaths of perhaps 50 Hauhau and 16 defenders, including one European. It still casts a long shadow on the river.
The battle of Moutoa compounded the divisions between the supporters of the Māori King Tāwhiao, mostly on the upper river, and the group known as kūpapa, who actively supported the Crown, on the lower river. These divisions continued through the wars of the 1860s, with kūpapa leader Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui (Major Kemp) distinguishing himself in a number of battles.
It was the external threat of the East Coast guerrilla leader Te Kooti’s incursion into the upper river in 1869 that once again brought together the woven strands of the river tribes. The combined forces of Te Keepa and Tōpia Tūroa – 500 men in a 65-canoe flotilla – drove up the river in pursuit of Te Kooti, but he eluded them.
The 1890s was the beginning of the riverboat era, when the river acquired international renown as a scenic tourist destination. However this, together with all the other forces of modernisation, transformed the traditional life and customary use of the river, most drastically the harvesting of eels.
The 19th-century protests by Māori over their threatened river interests heralded the longest-running legal case in New Zealand history. This began in the 1930s with petitions and court action; these led in the 1990s to the Waitangi Tribunal hearings, and after that the settlement process. In the 1970s the Tongariro Power Diversion took water that would have flowed into the Whanganui River from Mt Tongariro, and diverted it into the Tongariro power scheme. Since this time, protection of the waters of the river has been contested by Whanganui tribes (and environmentalists).
In 1993 a Department of Conservation hut at Tīeke, in the middle reaches of the river, was occupied by the Whanganui people. Their continuing occupancy has not only asserted their mana whenua (rights to the land), but also presented a traditional Māori face and attendance for the many visitors who journey down the river.
For 79 days in 1995, people of the Whanganui tribes occupied historic Pākaitore (Moutoa Gardens), beside the river and within the city of Whanganui. This protest was resolved peaceably, and a tripartite agreement with government and local government has since been signed. At the heart of all this is the Whanganui tribes’ claim to the river, which is still seen as both an ancestor and a source of material and spiritual sustenance.
Ruruku Whakatupua, the Whanganui River Deed of Settlement, was signed on 4 August 2014. This settlement is in two parts:
Te Mana o Te Awa Tupua. This provides for the establishment of Te Pā Auroa nā Te Awa Tupua, a new legal framework to recognise the Whanganui River as a ‘legal person’. The Crown-owned parts of the bed of the Whanganui River and its tributaries will be vested in Te Awa Tupua.
Te Mana o Te Iwi o Whanganui. This provides financial redress of approximately $115 million, including $30 million towards Te Korotete, a fund to support the health and wellbeing of Te Awa Tupua.
In the New Zealand censuses since 1991, residents of Māori descent were asked to indicate the tribe to which they were affiliated. The figures below show the number who indicated the Whanganui tribes (including those who indicated more than one tribe), and the regions where they were found in the greatest numbers in 2013.
The only previous census asking Māori to indicate tribal affiliation – but not of multiple tribes – was that of 1901.
Downes, T. W. Old Whanganui. Christchurch: Kiwi, 1998 (originally published 1915).
Phillipps, W. J. Carved Maori houses of western and northern areas of New Zealand. Wellington: Government Printer, 1955.
Simon, Morvin T. Taku whare e: he mauri tu. My home my heart: the spirit dwells still. Wanganui: Wanganui Regional Community College, 1986.
Waitangi Tribunal. The Whanganui River report. Wai 167. Wellington: GP Publications, 1999.
Young, David. Faces of the river: New Zealand’s living water. Auckland: TVNZ, 1996.
Young, David. Woven by water: histories of the Whanganui River. Wellington: Huia, 1998.